Denial: Overview, effects, and alternatives

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson
Updated January 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Denial is a common defense mechanism that we often employ unconsciously to avoid uncomfortable emotions and tough circumstances. While it can provide a temporary respite from discomfort, denial can exacerbate a difficult situation and lead to more challenging feelings in the long run. Below, we’re discussing denial, its role in our lives, and how it can be replaced with healthy coping mechanisms. 

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Denial can prevent us from processing difficult emotions

What is denial?

Life often presents challenges that are difficult to face, leading to emotions and experiences we may not want to confront.

When a demanding situation arises, the healthiest and most productive response is typically to address it directly, find solutions to the problem, and process our emotions surrounding it, even if that leads to uncomfortable feelings like stress, sadness, or anger. However, our minds are adept at avoiding discomfort and frequently utilize various defense mechanisms that limit such emotional distress.

One of these defense mechanisms, denial, involves minimizing or ignoring these challenges.

Denial can lead us to avoid situations that may produce uncomfortable emotions. According the APA Dictionary of Psychology, denial is a "defense mechanism in which unpleasant thoughts, feelings, wishes, or events are ignored or excluded from conscious awareness”. 

Denial often involves blocking external events from conscious awareness or developing beliefs that run counter to reality. If a situation is likely to produce difficult feelings, an individual may refuse to experience it at all or adopt a distorted perception of the facts. That doesn't make the situation go away, but it can allow the person to avoid having an emotional reaction to it. While this can reduce discomfort in the short term, it can cause the situation to worsen and lead to more complicated emotions in the long term. 

Consider, for example, a situation in which someone lives beyond their means financially but denies the reality that they’re spending more than they’re making. They may choose to believe they can get back ahead easily or just ignore the situation completely. This might allow them to avoid the stress that often accompanies financial duress in the short term, but it can cause the situation to worsen over time. Eventually, their financial hardship may become much harder to cope with; and once they do address the situation, anxiety and other uncomfortable feelings surrounding money may be worse than they would’ve been at the outset of the problem.  

Building on the work of her father, Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud helped develop the idea of defense mechanisms. She believed that these functions can be safeguards against damaging our egos when we experience contradictions within ourselves. In the above example, the individual may experience such a contradiction between the need for financial stability and the desire to reduce stress brought on by addressing their financial situation. Through denial, they may deal with this by denying that the need for financial stability exists. 

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The effects of denial

Denial can cause people to develop maladaptive behaviors and experience serious challenges in life. It can lead someone to engage in unhealthy behaviors or allow a bad situation to continue. The negative effects of denial often compound over time—if an individual is aware that a certain situation is worsening, they may try harder to avoid confronting it, allowing the problem to grow. 

Many people don't realize that they’re in a state of denial until a situation has gotten out of control. Someone who finds themselves involved in a similar set of bad circumstances repeatedly may be in denial as to the reasons why. For example, someone may experience frequent health concerns due to substance use but attribute them to other sources to avoid confronting a potential addiction.

It is common for people to reach the point where they’re ready for a change, and that can mean being honest about their thoughts, feelings, actions, and choices. Below, we’re going to discuss ways people can recognize when they might be in a state of denial and find healthier coping mechanisms.

How to avoid denial

The ability to identify reality and address uncomfortable situations can be crucial to our ability to accomplish goals, nurture relationships, and foster mental and physical wellness. The following are some tips for avoiding the use of denial as a defense mechanism in your life. 

Notice recurring patterns

Because of the nature of denial, it can be hard to identify its presence. Try to look for cycles of challenging scenarios in your life. Do you often allow difficult situations to worsen before addressing them? Do you frequently have trouble accepting reality? It’s possible that you’ve recognized these behaviors in your life but been unaware that they’re part of a common defense mechanism. Identifying patterns of denial can help you take steps toward confronting challenges and developing healthy coping mechanisms. 

Find a different point of view

Even after you’ve identified possible situations in which you engage in denial, it can be hard to avoid utilizing it as a defense mechanism. Having a vested interest in safeguarding our feelings in the short term can make it hard for our minds to accept the facts of a situation. When you think this the case for you, a potentially useful way to disrupt cycles of denial is to spend time with people who can provide you with advice. Talk to them about your situation and allow them to challenge your thinking on various issues. Then, be willing to examine your assumptions and opinions. Developing a different point of view may help you feel better about confronting difficult situations. 

Develop stress management techniques

Denial is often a way for us to avoid the anxiety and distress that can accompany everyday life. If this is sometimes the case for you, knowing how to cope with stress in a healthy way can help you address situations with more confidence. There are several proven strategies for reducing stress in your everyday life, including exercising, eating a balanced diet, deep breathing, and practicing mindfulness

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Denial can prevent us from processing difficult emotions

Developing healthy coping mechanisms with online therapy

Working with a therapist, you can develop healthy behaviors and coping mechanisms to address your life circumstances, like meditating, building a new support system, practicing gratitude, or consciously rephrasing language that may convince you of a lack of agency in a challenging situation. Additionally, you can gain valuable insight into your thought processes and behaviors, so you can work with them more intentionally.

A therapist may use an approach like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you overcome denial tendencies. Part of the aim of CBT is to empower people to help themselves in demanding situations. A therapist can do this by teaching an individual how to use different tools and techniques in place of harmful or counterproductive defense mechanisms, like denial.

Studies have shown that online therapy is effective in treating various mental health conditions in which denial is a common coping mechanism. For example, in a study on the efficacy of online cognitive behavioral therapy for grief, researchers found that treatment led to significant reductions in symptoms of depression and loss. The study also notes the ability of online therapy to bridge the treatment gap that often exists due to barriers to mental health care, including geographical limitations, cost, and perceived stigma.  

If you’d like to know more about denial or similar defense mechanisms, online therapy can be beneficial. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can work with a therapist remotely, which can be more comfortable if denial is already making it difficult for you to open up. Your therapist can also connect you with useful resources, such as at-home exercises that may help you develop coping mechanisms on your own time. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people who have sought help for similar concerns.

Counselor reviews

"Sharon Valentino has helped me through so much! Since we started working together, just a few months ago, I already feel like I have more power and control over my life. I have let go of some very painful things, I have moved away from abusive relationships, and really gained the skills and tools I need to keep myself safe and happy. She has taught me that I have the power to control my thoughts, my anxiety, and most of all my company. I really like how direct she is; it helps me get grounded and connected to myself. I can't wait to see where I am after working with her a year!!!"

"Amy has been very insightful, offering the right series of skills to help me take control of my own thinking and emotions. She is supportive and always responds from a place of reflection and non-judgment, which gives me greater insight into how to solve my own problems better, rather than stress further. Highly recommend her to anyone, especially if you're feeling "stuck" in life's patterns."

Takeaway

Denial is a common defense mechanism that can negatively affect our mental health and further complicate already difficult situations. Learning to accept reality and address situations in a healthy way can help us face life’s challenges. If you’d like support developing healthy coping mechanisms and limiting denial in your life, consider getting matched with a licensed therapist online. With the right tools and support, you can take ownership of your life and thrive.

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